Dimension2: Contemporary German-Language Literature

Volume 2, Number 3


Colonial Landscapes and the German Mind

Ingo R. Stoehr

It is not easy to deal with the "Third World," but perhaps it never has been. The dynamic relationship of the familiar and the unfamiliar should always ahve provided an opportunity for an encounter with the Other and for self-examination; however, this opportunity of coping with difference has probably been abused very often for self-affirmation instead. This criticism applies to literary accounts as well as to scholarly approaches under the auspices of ethnology.

Thinkers and writers from Michel Montaigne to Michael Krüger have joined in the choir of critics. In his famous essay, "Of Cannibals," Montaigne writes more than four hundred years ago: "I think there is nothing barbarous and savage in that nation, from what I have been told, except that each man calls barbaris whateveris not his own practice." And Krüger's first-person narrator in Himmelfarb (1993) declares the death of ethnology:

Probably the mailman or the gardner across the street, the woman with the samll head, is more foreign than any Hopi Indian, who at the end of the month picks up his check, so he can get drunk for three days. The sciences, whic have blanched us to the bone and talked us to death, have left behind a strager, a foreign creature that cannot be compared through any analogy with a human being. [translated by A. Leslie Willson. DIMENSION2 1.1 (1994): 107-109. Also published as a book by George Braziller, Inc. 1994]

While encounters with foreign cultures, and with them the experience of difference as such, have thus become problematic, they remain central to the human condition. Montaigne formulates this position in another essay, "Of the Inconsistency of Our Actons": "We are all patchwork, and so shapeless and diverse that each bit, each moment plays its own game. And there is as much difference between us and ourselves as between us and others." In Montaigne's logic, therefore, difference is the "most universal member."

Difference, then is something that needs to be upheld, and among the guiding questions should be the following ones: What is the difference between the "First World" and the "Third World"? What is the difference between self-affirmation and self-examination? What is the difference between superficial tourism and truly experiencing the unfamiliar?

Of course, it is difficult to determine these differences. Some definitions of "Third World," for example, were political and relied on the existence of the Western alliance and the Eastern Block countries; non-aligned countries such as Yugoslavia, India, Ethiopia were considere "Third World" countries. Other definitions stress economic factors to measure the status of underdeveloped and developing countries in regard to the threshold level they need to reach in order to join the ranks of the "First World" countries.

What is the "Third World" to German-language literature, then? First of all, literature does not present the "Third World" itself but always an image of it. Second, this image basically thrives on teh concept of the "Third World" as prototypically different, unfamiliar, alien. In this respect, an increasing sense of "Third-Worldness" surrounds the familiar in concentric circles. The "Third World" begins metaphorically right around the corner: "It's a jungle out there," Erwin Einzinger writes in his poem "Punk Jumps Up to Get Beaten Down" [translated by Paul Widergren. DIMENSION2 2.2 (1995): 289], where "jungle" can be read not only for danger lurking in the "civilized" world but also metonymically for the alienness that is typical of the "Third World." Then there is something like a "civilized" part of the "Third World" that is actually the touristic backyard of the "First World." This is Mexico (especially for the United States) and Northern Africa (especially for Europe).

The problematic of European colonialism is intertwined with the question of self-examination versus self-affirmation in an encounter with the unfamiliar of the "Third World." Hans Christoph Buch acknowledges this in his Die Nähe und die Ferne--Bausteine z einer Poetik des kolonialen Blicks [Proximity and Distance--Building Blocks of a Poetics of Colonial Perspective; Suhrkamp, 1991]. Where literature reflects upon the "effects of colonialism on literary imagination," as Buch demands, the literary text gains a critical level that allows an author from the "First World" to do justice to the "Third World."

While the "Third World" is not a ubiquitous topic in German-language literature, it does play a greater role than is usually assumed. The texts in this issue are selected from publications from only the past few years. They are representative of authors whose names are often associated with the "Third World" (especially Hans Christoph Buch, Hubert Fichte, and Uwe Timm), but they also include authors whose main focus is elsewhere. The approach to the "Third World" varies from author to author, from the "Third World" as the text's main subject to it being a mere foil for something more familiar.

The text by Günter Grass is a speech that reflects his experiences during his stay in India from August 1986 to January 1987. While his thoughts and art work in Zunge zeigen [1988; Show Your Tongue , 1989] show how difficult it must have been for Grass to deal with the realities of everyday life in India, For Example Calcutta" looks into the future where "Third World" conditions permeate throughout the former "First World" and where the way of life in, for example, Calcutta becomes a strategy for survival in the "First World": The "Third World" as a model.

In contrast, "Marrakesh' presents "Third World' at one point as the past of the "First World' when Günter Herburger compares the medieval part of downtown Marrakesh with the German city of Ulm, lamenting that the modern office towers cannot rival the artistic achievements of medieval Europe. The narrator, perceiving Marrakesh through the eyes of a marathon runner, literally rushes through the experiences that are also aimed at a mysterious "Maryam" from his own past, for whom he is looking" The "Third World" as Europe's past.

The personal motivation behind the choice to deal with the "Third World' takes on an even greater importance in Uwe Timm's two novels Morenga and Schlangenbaum [Snake Tree], which he talks about in the interview printed in this issue. For Hans Chrisoph Buch, too, the motivation is highly personal and, perhaps, on a similarly political level. In his trilogy of novels about Haiti, Buch centers his postmodern pastiche and parody on political and natural history; however, part of Buch's own family history intersects with the history of Haiti's fight for liberty when his grandfather emigrated to Haiti. His first visit to Haiti in 1968, at the height of the student unrest in Germany, confronts him with a world whose existence he had not thought possible:

an island...that, at that time, was ruled by Papa Doc, a sinister voodoo dictator; a place where human sacrifice was not only performed in a figurative but also literal sense. [Stoehr. "A Conversation with Hans Christoph Buch." Dimension 19.3 (1993): 469.]

This quote also supplies the background for Buch's "Gute Nacht, lieber Leser," which sketches the mood and purpose of his Haiti project: to the effects of colonialism and nationalism. Buch's multiculturalism stresses the dialogue between different cultures. The excerpt from Erich Hackl's novel, Sara und Simón , fits into this context because it emphasizes not the colonialism of one nation toward another but of one human being toward another in human rights abuses: The "Third World" as a political key to past and present colonial attitudes everywhere.

Hubert Fichte, coming from the German homosexual subculture, is particularly attracted to the cultural and sexual syncretism of Afro-American religions. In this sense, the unfamiliar and the particular feed back into the familiar and the universal. In fact, Fichte claimed to be writing about the dynamics of life as such, putting his own life and the lives of people everywhere, be it in Germany or Brazil, into a comprehensive context of his massive, ongoing enterprise that encompasses his entire novelistic oeuvre. The excerpt from the recent, posthumous Explosion illustrates Fichte's syncretism that emphasizes the combination of cultures without necessarily acknowledging their differences: The "Third World" as autobiography.

The other texts in this issue participate to some degree in viewing the "Third World" as a model, the past, a political key, and/or (auto)biography. However, they seem to stress another element that is also shared by the text discussed so far, i.e., the element of travel. Why go to the "Third World"--because it's there, Bodo Kirchhoff answers the question in reference to Somalia. Of course, the question remains of whether going there brings any tangible results.

The deployment of German troops in Solalia, which was discussed in highly controversial terms in Germany, is shown by Kirchhoff in basic human terms. The excerpt from Inge Merkel's novel, Aus den Geleisen [Off the Tracks], ridicules the naive, and ultimately, arrogant Western manner of dealing with "Third-World" poverty as a curiosity. Ludwig Fels's first-person narrator in Bleeding Heart visits Tangier just like Jake Barnes in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises lives in Paris and visits Pamplona--or rather like a suicidal Jake whom Brett has finally left. Now his only on-and-off relationship is with a dog, and the figure of the policeman, which was present in the background in key passages in Hemingway's novel, has become a threat to the narrator's identity. Joseph Zoderer paints the picture of a precarious paradise in his Schildkrötenfest , where a group of expatriates lives among natives, but despite efforts such as the turtle celebration the two worlds seem to stay apart. The motivation for these travels seems to lie in a curiosity about the unfamiliar, perhaps in hope of finding a sense of meaning that cannot be found in the familiar: The "Third World" as the "First World's" self-examination (at best) or self-affirmation (at worst).

This takes us back to the questions of how to differentiate between the two worlds and between self-examination and self-affirmation. Any differentiation will probably produce variation across a scale rather than an either/or. An an editor, my task is to challenge every reader to read the texts and to form his or her own opinion.


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